The momentous mistake I made

The momentous mistake I made

[Light spoilers for Bioshock Infinite, heavy spoilers for Spec Ops: The Line]

There’s a scene in BioShock Infinite that’s very similar to one in Spec Ops: The Line where you have to pass through a crowd to eventually complete the game. In BioShock Infinite, the scene involves asking you the player to aggress either a racist showman with a baseball or to direct it instead at the heads of an interracial couple bound and strung on-stage for sport. I presume this is supposed to be a difficult Moral Decision operating on the logic that, while racism is bad, a mob to obstacle you from your mission is equally bad. It’s naive and upsetting and selfish at best, and even putting aside the fact that this occurs at the beginning of a shooting game, the mechanics having already been produced, in which context an unruly mob might more sound like the opportunity to finally play, it’s not structured in a way to recommend the value of acting as one chooses.

The scene in Spec Ops is one where you gun down a crowd, and it is so wondrously beautiful from start to finish I suggest you enjoy it for yourself here. It starts properly much earlier when you find yourself in a warzone cut off from the pair in your unit, but it goes further back to a slowly spreading sense of dread and seeded themes of conceit and delusion of military men as ‘saviours’, and the sense of power and self-idolatry of someone in that position What’s especially beautiful in this scene is not the way it plants apprehension at the mobbing of your comrade, Lugo, and rises it and rises it from your bowels to your throat, and hurries you feebly, powerlessly towards it, culminating in the futile attempt to resurrect him while the mob spits and pushes forward.

What’s beautiful is the seamless way you react to a situation without any notion that you’re making a decision, because although choices are available no actual decision is ever made. The mission update tells you to “Get the Hell outta Here” but the crowd acts as a barrier to your forward progress; your hesitation gives chance for people to throw stones from the back, nibbling you but threatening no real damage. The rush from Lugo’s death feeds you and enrages you against delusions of injustice of this mob. You’re stuck, barricaded, by murderers – they killed your comrade and they’re standing right there in your way and now they throw stones at you! You’ve tried to be patient but they give you no choice, you recognize your indignancy and lust for revenge is not fair, you don’t want to satisfy it, it wouldn’t be right. These people had just cause to mob Lugo – you’re invaders, you murdered them first, you brought this blazing hell to their homes. But still the fact remains that you need to move onwards and they won’t let you, they hiss at you and keep pushing you, so you push back the only way you know how.

I would learn much later as Laura replayed the game that my experience of this scene was slanted. You can raise your gun as you’ve always been able to do and fire above the heads of the crowd to disperse it. My actions crashed down upon me with the weight of my responsibility for them. It would be quite easy to say the game tricked me by not informing me of this option but the truth is I was unable to see it for how consumed I was within the moment. Did I measure every alternative and decide to choose the path I took? Am I absolved for my ignorance, though the slaughter was wilfully mine?

What sort of a world would that be where either of these would be the case. Imagine how disdainful, how alienating such an existence every one of us would lead where we could act as we saw fit, act in such a way as to be true to ourselves, to satisfy our desires, to shun our anger or stifle the cruelty of our words and our deeds, to get caught up in a moment and lash out like a monster, and then to disclaim it all in the swiftness of a dawning light when it no longer suited our manners.

There’s a tight balance here between determinism and existentialism. One one side, we’re given worlds hard-defined by rules and structures, that take us by the hand and show us every thing we can touch and feel along the way; the most expert games are those which do it with such grace as to be the wind guiding us home. No amount of procedural generation can defeat the teleology of a game’s author–the best we can hope for is to struggle to change the soul of our experience in spite of the world, or let ourselves drift aloft in blissful naivety. Those inexpert ones which don’t acknowledge the determinism of their world, loll in fancy for ideas of free will, though what this will is free from they never think to ask.

Just as a game is a world wired with rules and structures, so too are we governed by limits and instructions of our world, by the length of our arm, by our lifespan and birthplace and hard won experiences and qualities so long since assigned to us many of us have internalised them as intrinsic, as vital to our individuality, and to be prized for this. We exist within these rules often times unknowing, for there’s so little space to live when consumed by the impossibility of it, so we live as if these rules never existed, but abidingly, because it must be so. And as we live we act out who we are, not as a performance but as an expression, not deliberate because not forethought, but accidentally and honestly who we are, even if who we are is a monster who needs to temper its cruelty, or a romantic wearing a stern face to brave the day. Inside being, simply being, is a photon of truth, the present state of us and who we are embodied within a moment of action. And that is the other side: the existentialism of an act that, for who we are, passionate and cruel and unfair and loving, could not have been otherwise.

It is forever the failing of the medium that Decisions must be made with a capital-D, structured for presentation of both sides, as if both sides are equally opportune, fuelling the fairy tales we tell ourselves about concepts of free will. Measure these options to condemn racism or to maintain discretion and choose, for the choice you make will be Meaningful. And convenient. And pleasant. It is my experience that the only choices that can have meaning are the choice that agonizes, and no choice at all, for in the latter I can point back to afterwards and see a ghost of myself living in it, so impassioned and alive as to be conceited of the absence of any alternative, so foolish and honest and gloriously mine.

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8 thoughts on “The momentous mistake I made

  1. Hotline Miami did something very similar near the end. The game conditions you into believing violence is necessary for progress but, near the end, subtly introduces harmless, unarmed characters that don’t need to be killed to progress. There is no consequence to killing them or leaving them be, but most players are so conditioned to commit violence by then that the unarmed NPCs are instinctively killed when they come into view. The premise of the game, a character being manipulated by telephone calls into committing unnecessary acts of violence is a metaphor for the game manipulating the player into committing unnecessary acts of violence.

    • “The premise of the game, a character being manipulated by telephone calls into committing unnecessary acts of violence is a metaphor for the game manipulating the player into committing unnecessary acts of violence.”

      Do games manipulate players into committing unnecessary acts of violence? Can players not differentiate between living people and one-dimensional obstacles in a video game? I would say certainly not.

      • To clarify: I mean the game manipulates the player into choosing to commit acts of violence against NPCs that are not necessarily required. Lots of games do this, but few work it into the narrative.

        The end of Hotline Miami actually has you confronting the game developers over all the violence in the game

    • Aye, games can be quite effective at narratives of structural design, be it social, bureaucratic, political, psychological, though it seems that “videogames are violent” is a bit too common a theme among suddenly self-reflective game devs. I’ve still never played Hotline Miami so I don’t know how it qualifies (I do know a lot of people began questioning its capacity for satire around the time HM2 orchestrated a rape scene in order to say, I don’t know, rape is bad?). In the case of Spec Ops it was much of the same – a good few critics dismissed its rhetorical use of violence as directed at the medium rather than the military setting, saying it’s still a game that relies on violence being fun to enact its message that violence is horrible. I never found the gunplay to be fun, though, and the ‘invading imperialists’ narrative to be too hard to ignore. It’s definitely a game I’d recommend to see for yourself.

      • Spec Ops was one of my favourite games of that year. And yeah it’s very easy to put a sticker on your work that says “parody” or “critique”. Though what I found interesting about Spec Ops and Hotline Miami is how they exploited the player’s desire for catharsis to achieve ludonarrative harmony.

        I would also wager that critics who dismissed Spec Ops by saying it relies on violence being fun to enact its message that violence is horrible are way off base. I would instead say the message in these games, or at least these segments is not “violence is horrible” but rather “the player is horrible”.

        Silent Hill 3 also explored this theme in a less subtle way, as the number of kills contributes to the possibility of a bad ending. This might be a contrivance on my part, but I would say, at the 2:25 mark in this video, Vincent is addressing the player as much as he is addressing Heather.

  2. Have to say I think one of my proudest gaming moments came during the first time I played Spec Ops, and decided to shoot over the crowd rather than into it. It’s a little thing but I felt good about myself. A line held indeed.

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